“I chose each of you for a reason. No one wants you to live and thrive as much as I do.”

Three days from their departure, Ekaterina watched from the deck of her ship as the gagged and zip-tied captives were loaded out onto the angled bank. Between the narrow spurs of the mountain, sand had begun to build itself up. In a few weeks time, this would transform into a proper strand, but for now, it was still steep enough that she had been able to find a place close to shore for her Kosatka to anchor. 

There were twenty in all, each chosen from different navies. Some of them plucked from the midst of their dying comrades, and some of them, the ones with anger and hate in their eyes, Sergei had promoted up their ranks by executing their superiors.

“Why them?” she’d asked as they turned for Himalaya. “They’ll fight you.”

Sergei kept his eyes out on the acid green horizon, a small smile in the corner of his mouth as he worked a cloth over a sleek Sig Sauer .35 he’d taken personally from the hand of a South African destroyer captain. He was almost meditative as he polished the last of the blood from the weapon, buffing it until it gleamed dull silver in the sickly afternoon sun. 

“For you, Katya,” he said, offering her the pistol. 

She accepted the weapon, trying to see past the display of fondness he was currently evincing. It hadn’t taken much to subdue the survivors they’d come across so far, and she’d been good at picking out targets. They always went for smaller ships, always ones that were geographically furthest from their last port of call, and therefore the least supplied. So many of the crews were so willing to give away everything once she had opened the communication channels. The weeping, the pleas. The simple gratitude. 

Her son, Aleksi, had rather taken to Sergei in their short acquaintance. He was intimidated by the older man’s sheer physical presence and his deadly skill, but when Sergei had consented to instruct him in the finer points of killing, Ekaterina realized too late that her dubious ally had acquired Aleksi as the ideal foil with which to ensure her own complicity. 

She showed nothing of this. She had been a first rate officer in her old occupation, in large part to her ability to conform to the needs of a given situation. She’d sweet talked more than one ship into surrender back in her day, and had sunk even more. At first, they didn’t have that kind of firepower. But as their take increased, she and Sergei had devised new ways to apply pressure. Once they’d acquired enough explosives, they’d simply taken to blowing open the hulls of the larger vessels, and fishing out the strongest swimmers. 

“Come here, Aleksi,” Sergei said with the air of a fond uncle. “Show me what you’ve learned.”

Assault rifle cuddled against his shoulder, her son followed Sergei’s instructions, firing rounds at the naval personnel desperately treading water. He missed more than he hit, but his bullets found one young sailor, a boy near his own age, sending a spray of blood over the becalmed blue sea. 

Ekaterina, finally unable to stand this demonstration, went to her son and yanked the rifle out of his arms. “Go to the galley and help Mischa.”

The boy seemed likely to argue. Ekaterina slapped him across the face. “You want to play soldier?” she spat. “Or do you just want to be a thug?” 

His eyes were full of tears as he returned her gaze, his freckled face reddening. Then he seemed to perceive that the words were not meant for him alone. 

“If you shoot at helpless victims you’ll never learn how to fight anyone. Go.”

Her son turned and walked away, and she was glad to see the shame weighting his steps. She didn’t want to raise a little psychopath. 

She shoved the rifle into Sergei’s hands, and looked him directly in the eyes. “Don’t teach my son your shit habits. I want him to grow up.”

Sergei tilted his head in that way she had lately noticed, watching her from an angle that seemed more apt for picking out weakness in her neck than to indicate his attention to her words. Then his face settled into a small, penitent smile. 

“You’re right, of course,” he said. “He must learn combat. You’re a real professional, you should train him.”

She looked at him, taking in all his false contrition, sensing that she had witnessed only the shallowest levels of his violence. Still, she took the artificial olive branch, and pulled her face until it approximated a smile. “Don’t forget it.” 

As she watched the captives sit on their knees on the unlevelled ground, their hands bound behind their backs, their eyes wide with apprehension and fear, Ekaterina knew this show was meant for her as well as for his motley audience.

Sergei stood before them in a wife beater, his ham-sized upper arms bare, as broad and brawny as any marble Hercules. Over his shoulders he had slung a Falcon MRAD sniper rifle, matte-black, American made and beautiful. He hung his wrists over the barrel and the butt, and marked one of his captives.

“You,” he said with a jovial smile. “Petty Officer John Lin, People’s Liberation Army. Correct?”

The man stared back in burning hatred. He had been one of the first they’d captured, taken from a Chinese patrol boat after an efficient slaughter of his two surviving crew members. 

“I like your rifle,” Sergei said, turning and nuzzling his face against the gun’s barrel. “She’s lovely.”

These words, Ekaterina knew, were not only for the young man now weeping tears of rage through his gag. And it dawned on her why Sergei had chosen some of his captives for their defiance. These fierce ones now watched Petty Officer Lin. 

“Listen now,” Sergei said, and his deep tenor voice was clear and sharp in the evening air. “Soon I will release you. You will see what is left for you in Himalaya. I promise you, it isn’t much. But if you survive long enough, I will call on you. I will raise you. You will be my elite. You owe your lives to me already. I will give you what you have earned in that exchange.”

His eyes went to Ekaterina. He flashed her a small smile. She was careful to keep her face impassive. 

He took the gun down from his shoulders, held it by his side as he stared down at Petty Officer Lin. “You can earn her back, John Lin. When the time comes, and you swear obedience, I will put her in your hands.”

Sergei let the long gun slide through his hand until the butt rested on the ground. He balanced it with one finger on the barrel, then gestured with a jerk of his head. Aleksi came from behind him, a pair of wire-cutters in hand. Ekaterina took a breath as he approached the Chinese officer. She wanted to shout, to tell him to stop, not to — 

He cut the man’s bonds. Lin was still extremely thin but a few days’ feed had restored him admirably. He pulled the gag from his mouth, struggled to his feet, and then stared at Sergei. Then at the gun. Then at Sergei. 

He lunged for the rifle. 

Sergei let it fall, seizing the man by his shirt back, helping him overbalance, driving his face into the stony ground. Lin screamed in pain as his nose broke, causing blood to flood over the wet stones. The others watched, hypnotized as Sergei effortlessly dragged the man up by the neck, holding him back against his broad chest. 

As he withdrew the Damascus steel bowie knife from the sheath at his back, Ekaterina wanted to turn herself away. She was done with this circus, but she had thrown her lot in with this man, and she knew she needed to see it through.

As his captive audience looked on, Sergei inserted the point of the knife under John Lin’s chin, and pushed it up with horrifying slowness. The man screamed through his nose in agony as blood bubbled through his mouth. Almost tenderly, Sergei withdrew the knife, and then released Lin, allowing him to writhe in the rocky sand as his life bled out through his mouth and nose. 

“You have a choice,” Sergei said, now wiping off his weapon on the dying man’s uniform. “You can die today, or tomorrow, or next week, or next year. You can die a beggar, or a whore, or no one at all.”

Sergei nudged John Lin with his foot. His now lifeless body slid into the surf, sinking face down into the sand. 

“I chose each of you for a reason. No one wants you to live and thrive as much as I do.” He indicated the dead man with the knifepoint. “He didn’t believe that.”

He sheathed his blade, and withdrew another one from his boot, a smaller butterfly knife. He looked around for another victim, and decided on a young woman near the front who was covered in tattoos, and who had a stringy, hollow eyed look of a junky. She was Italian, if Ekaterina remembered rightly, a mercenary they’d taken from a cartel ship. She also seemed disaffected by what she had witnessed, either from shock or a genuine disinterest.

Sergei looked down at her, his pale blue eyes glittering as she looked back at him, her expression devoid of the kind of fear or anger shown by the others. He held the knife, closed, in front of her. “My name is Sergei Vetrov. I hope I will see you again.” 

The girl just stared at him, and Ekaterina wondered if she understood English. Sergei set the knife down in front of her, and left the captives to figure out how to free themselves. 

“You really think this is going to work?” Ekaterina asked as they sailed back up the inlet towards the settlement.

As they neared the mooring point just outside the minefield, Sergei looked out at the strand, his hunched posture almost pensive as he rested his forearms on the rail, his white blonde hair turning pink in the dying light. Ekaterina followed his gaze, picked out Mikhail, and Vikram’s father Radhesh, working to bring in another boat full of refugees.

There were more dead than survivors. Radhesh and Mikhail had to ease a little girl’s body away from her hysterical mother. Mikhail took charge of the sad little corpse, carrying her towards the next turning, the area behind which had become the settlement’s graveyard. It wasn’t visible from where the boat had landed, but Ekaterina and Sergei could see perfectly well as they followed his father’s progress.

Vultures feasted on the bodies of the dead, ripping and tearing through human limbs, human faces, faster than they could rot. They watched as Mikhail paused, looked into the child’s face, then carefully lowered her down to the ground. He turned away before the birds could begin to investigate her. As he walked back to the others, Ekaterina could see his shoulders heaving, his hand over his eyes, his whole great body in an attitude of unendurable grief. 

“Yes,” Sergei said, as tranquil and relaxed as though he had witnessed nothing more troubling than a nature documentary. “It will work.”